On Wednesday, Sept. 20, the village of Oak Park is hosting a public meeting to examine housing challenges in Oak Park. Availability of affordable housing — or the increasing lack thereof — should be at the top of the priority list.

A Wednesday Journal issue from earlier this summer highlighted this in stark terms, simultaneously reporting on our growing homelessness problem (https://www.oakpark.com/2023/07/03/unhoused-encampment-takes-root-near-oak-park-metra-station/) as well as our “hot hot hot” real estate market (https://www.oakpark.com/2023/06/29/too-hot-to-handle/). COVID has supercharged the value of a single-family home in Oak Park, while rising interest rates have driven available inventory down to record lows.

More recent Oak Parkers may be as surprised as I was to learn that in the 1960s, Oak Park had a population of 64,000 people, 10,000 more than we do today — a function of smaller family sizes and more longtime residents choosing to age in place. Our village has the ability to accommodate many more people than we do today, and demand to live here is higher than ever; unfortunately, we do not have enough housing, affordable or otherwise, to meet that demand. The last decade of investment in downtown has helped at the high end of the rental market, and the inclusionary zoning ordinance is generating funds for affordable housing, but these solutions have been limited to just a small slice of the village.

Our zoning code, which was last updated in 2017, did not anticipate the impacts of COVID on housing demand, construction costs, and interest rates. Increased costs and minimum-parking requirements mean that only large, luxury apartment buildings are viable, and smaller, naturally affordable “missing middle” housing developments are impossible to build. Meanwhile, any new residential building that seeks to build more units or less parking than our zoning code permits must go through the planned development process, adding complexity and inevitably attracting outrage from a small but vocal subset of community members.

It’s been over 50 years since Oak Park’s bold ideas around housing and integration shaped the future of the village, and bold ideas are needed again to preserve that commitment.

Here is mine: In 2021 the village approved a tool that could help increase our stock of naturally affordable housing in a way that would preserve the oft-cited “community character” and add gentle density that should mollify the concerns of anyone with a “Wright-Sized Development” or “No High Rise” sign in their front yard — Accessory  Dwelling Units, or ADUs.

While the original intention of the ordinance was reportedly to provide flexibility to homeowners rather than be a tool for affordable housing, it’s time to rethink that perspective if we want to make a meaningful impact on retaining our true community character: our racial and economic diversity, which is at risk.


The ordinance is remarkably flexible, empowering homeowners to make decisions for their own property with clear guidance and no new parking required (though you can’t lose a spot, more on this later). Every Oak Park homeowner can build one by right — no public meetings, no planned development process, no commission review (unless you live in a historic district).

We have 11,000 single-family homes in Oak Park; if only 36 homeowners built and rented out an ADU, we’d have the equivalent of the much-maligned Chicago & Ridgeland apartment building without a new “high rise” in sight. Without unnecessary “luxury” features or parking requirements driving up rents, the units would be far more affordable than one in any downtown tower. Meanwhile, research shows that tenants who live in ADUs are more likely to be car-free or car-light and rely on transit, walking and biking to get around. Oak Park’s lot structure, combined with excellent walk scores and access to transit, make it the perfect community for rental ADUs to proliferate.

Increased density through ADUs would also promote stronger community ties, with direct tenant/landlord relationships and renters becoming an integrated part of the fabric of Oak Park’s celebrated blocks.

Our local design and construction community would get more work with these smaller projects vs. large apartment projects, keeping more economic value here in the village. Homeowners would have a new income source that can help cover the mortgage and make the house a viable purchase for a future buyer that might otherwise have not been able to afford a single-family home on its own, further promoting housing access in the community.

Call it the Oak Park version of the Chicago Two Flat, or an investment property in your own backyard.


The most obvious barrier to this plan is the cost to build the ADU, made more challenging by our current interest rate environment. To pencil out, the rent collected would need to cover financing costs, property tax increases, operating costs, and a reasonable profit. Not surprisingly, the ADUs built so far have essentially been housing additions to add square footage or accommodate extended families and home-based businesses.

The good news is there is no shortage of renter demand, and we already have an obvious partner to this new cohort of small landlords: the Oak Park Regional Housing Center (OPRHC). How can we drive down the cost and make building a rental ADU attractive to enterprising homeowners?

We give all kinds of subsidies, variances, and accommodations to developers to build in Oak Park with the assumption that there will be a return on that investment through an increased tax base and more local economic activity. What if instead we directed those incentives to the benefit of Oak Park residents instead of out-of-town developers? Keep those benefits in the community, for the community, with homeowners as local micro-developers. Thanks to our well-written ordinance, ADUs are a straightforward and simple form of development relative to large apartment buildings, and could be made even more streamlined and viable with the right technical assistance.

OPRHC recently got into the development game with the Laramie Bank project in Austin; perhaps being a development partner to dozens — or dare I say hundreds — of Oak Park homeowners is a better fit for the center’s mission and expertise. Technical assistance services could include feasibility analysis, project development support, and leasing services, in addition to their existing forms of landlord support.

So how can we knock down barriers and incentivize Oak Park homeowners to build ADUs for rental income? Here are some ideas to get us started:

  • Create a low- or no-interest loan fund for homeowners who commit to rent their ADU to tenants within a target AMI (Area Median Income) range; the village could partner with a local bank or CDFI and use a source such as the affordable housing fund or community foundation as a guarantee/loss reserve against these relatively low-risk projects;
  • Streamline permitting processes and eliminate fees for ADUs that are built for rental purposes;
  • Reconsider the overnight parking ban so that homes with ADUs can park a car in front of their house, maximizing living space that houses people instead of cars;
  • Design and publish a few standardized studio, 1 bedroom and two bedroom designs that could fit on the vast majority of typical Oak Park lot sizes, streamlining the cost of design and construction;
  • Form a team of “ADU Neighbors,” existing homeowners with rental ADUs who can share their experiences with “rental ADU-curious” homeowners, help them through the process, and form a community;
  • Engage with leading nonprofits like the Preservation Compact (https://www.preservationcompact.org) to explore incentives that create and preserve Naturally Occurring Affordable Housing, like property tax relief.

I welcome others to poke holes in these ideas, make them better, or propose new ones altogether, as long as they are in the shared vein of envisioning an Oak Park that continues to be accessible to a diverse range of future residents. I know that my family would not be able to afford our house, purchased only four years ago, if we had to buy it today. I’m grateful for my incredibly lucky timing and the opportunity to live and send my kids to school in this wonderful community. I’m also resolved to make sure that the door to move to Oak Park isn’t closing behind me for anyone who is not wealthy. Perhaps the key to new doors into our village can be found over our garages.

Nicole Chavas is an Oak Park resident.

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